If you stand on a street corner long enough, something extraordinary is bound to turn up. Local municipal officials had a poster up not long ago showing that a shocking number of pedestrians had been run over within a kilometer’s radius of the corner where it was posted. One might think that “nothing happens” in ordinary life, but on the contrary, everything that is extraordinary comes to the ordinary. A car comes barreling up the sidewalk, or a bus takes a turn too wide and …
You can just be sitting in your living room and have the cops knock on your door. It happened once. They asked if I had seen my neighbor lately. Not that I noticed, I said. Well, thanks, said the cops — and left. The neighbor had evidently died of something and the cops were responding to a relative’s request to see why he wasn’t answering his phone. I watched the mortuary vehicle drive away, wondering, wondering.
Or the time a kind of keening voice came from beyond the hedge, which turned out to be another neighbor, an elderly lady, who had come home drunk from a party, fallen and broken her arm. I found her husband and he carried her off. In fact, if you sit out on the verandah with a pair of binoculars you will probably feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, overwhelmed with enough clues to start dozens of stories but not enough to finish a single one.
So when a big ambulance pulled up at another house a few months back and the techs carried a man into the house, my curiosity was naturally piqued. The mystery deepened when a number of delivery vans showed up the next day unloading what looked like invalid furniture — the gizmos you put on toilets, the handrails you bolt to walls, etc.
I went over the next day and rang the bell. An elderly man of Eastern European provenance in a wheelchair and his similarly aged girlfriend opened the door. He was missing a leg. I introduced myself as living across the way offering any help I might provide, and the lady volunteered the most extraordinary story.
My neighbor, despite his years, had up until then enjoyed a robust good health. “He liked to go out every day,” she said. “And then two weeks ago he noticed a slight cut in his toe which he ignored. Can you imagine — it went gangrenous and they had to amputate it in the hospital!”
The man was disconsolate. “It’s a nightmare,” he said. I reiterated my offer to help, should he need it, and walked back home. But the drama wasn’t over. I had expected to see him hobble out and had even sent him a catalog of scooters designed for stumps, but he never did come out. It all went wrong somehow.
What came out instead were possessions. First the books such as an intelligent man might read; books obviously acquired over a lifetime. And then clothes. Jackets of quality, shoes. Then office things. All of them were marked: “Take them if you wish. Charity will come for what you do not want.”
My wife went over and spoke to the old lady and asked about the Eastern European man. The girlfriend just shook her head, and went back in the door.
There was something terribly sad about seeing a life unwind in the shape of possessions being piled out front, like watching the memories of decades go into a crusher. I could imagine the possessions when they were new; when my neighbor was in the process of acquiring the furniture of his life. How he was excited at the prospect of a book; at wearing new pair of shoes. At telling the time in London from a world timepiece. The pride in owning a French name-brand skillet, which apparently he never used.
“It makes you realize,” I told my wife, “there was life with a man at the center of another universe, a life in which you — we– were on the periphery and not the other way around. Most people see the world as revolving around themselves. But to see the world as it truly is it would be necessary to look out of the eyes of each and every man.”
There are probably dozens of universes visible right from a front porch. In the car zipping by with the couple inside disputing something or the lady walking down the street. It’s more than we can ever know. The pile of charity things — which are there even now — are tokens of a rich cavalcade of experience of a single individual, far too great for me to understand.
Occasionally you get a view of a story through the eyes of others. Philip Johnson, a former sailor turned seminarian with a terminal brain tumor, is trying to convince Brittany Maynard, “a 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer one year after her wedding,” to keep looking out the window at life even though its scary. She wants to commit suicide because she’s terminally ill. He has decided to go on as long as he can.
When doctors suggested that she might only have six months to live, she and her family moved from California to Oregon in order to obtain the prescriptions necessary for doctor-assisted euthanasia. She is devoting her last days to fundraising and lobbying for an organization dedicated to expanding the legality of assisted suicide to other States.
Brittany’s story really hit home, as I was diagnosed with a very similar incurable brain cancer in 2008 at the age of twenty-four.
It’s one of those extraordinary tableaus that happen around us all the time. All of us are probably going to die, some in pain. Not just of the physical kind, but also of the sort that sees us lose everything we acquired in life; to see what we built up unwind, piece by piece, into a pile on the doorstep marked “charity.” Then what would we do in the face of this most ordinary of events? If some miracle saved Philip and Brittany for now, it would only reset the date, for there are no full pardons in this world of Rear Windows.
In Brittany’s video, her mother mentions that her immediate hope was for a miracle. My response to my diagnosis was the same – I hoped for a miraculous recovery so that I would not have to deal with the suffering and pain that was likely to come. However, I now realize that a “miracle” does not necessarily mean an instant cure. If it did, would we not die from something else later in our lives? Is there any reason that we deserve fifteen, twenty, or thirty or more years of life? Every day of life is a gift, and gifts can be taken away in an instant. Anyone who suffers from a terminal illness or has lost someone close to them knows this very well.
Maybe every day is a gift, just as the views outside our plain porches open on a field of miracles which we never notice. Perhaps the saddest thing about life is not that it ends, but that we let it pass us by, as we wait for something extraordinary (like Kim Kardashian) to happen when all along the wonderful was right outside our window.
Johnson believes that since he has to die, it might as well be part of his life. He will go to his death bed looking for the miracle in it; not for another day, but for the love at the last, for the swab on his lips, the caress on his forehead, even if that love is given only by those as transient as himself. “While often terrifying, the suffering and pain that we will all experience in our lives can be turned into something positive. This has been a very difficult task for me, but it is possible to achieve. I have walked in Brittany’s shoes, but I have never had to walk alone. … May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life.”
Perhaps it’s what we do for Brittany and Philip Johnson while they live that counts. When they die … well, that’s another story. “But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Keep looking out the window.
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